For every overnight YouTube sensation, there are 1,000 gated community gangster rap videos that should never have gotten past the cell phone that recorded them. Posting a provocative picture on Instagram that becomes popular is not the same thing as having a successful modeling career. For many of our nation’s youth, the internet is a gateway to infinite possibilities, connection, and self-expression. For others, it is an unforgiving cyber wilderness of regret where judgment is eclipsed by the insatiable need for validation.
Much has been said on the subject of Millennial Narcissism. Some subject matter experts refer to it as a pandemic, while others like Brook Lea Foster consider it a myth, stating that this generation of twenty-somethings is no more self-absorbed than the ‘me generation’ of the 1970’s. So how does one truly compare one generation’s narcissism to another, and what exactly is the generational psychopathology quotient associated with the need for overexposure?
This nuance in personality structure has powerful implications for how substance use disordered millennials will present in treatment.
Jean Twenge, Ph.D. is a professor at San Diego State University and a foremost researcher on the subject of Millennial Narcissism. Twenge has authored over ninety publications on related subjects including several research journal articles and the popular book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Much of her research is based on comparing scores on personality inventories like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) between groups of millennial age individuals and representatives of elder generations. The results have been that the millennial group responds to the questions in a way that is much more consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder than their elder counterparts. These findings have been replicated in multiple trials and are considered reliable. That being said, we must also consider that scores on face valid personality assessments would be somewhat insufficient to diagnose a personality disorder in the absence of a structured clinical interview by a trained clinician. However, the consistent manner in which the millennial subjects responded to the questions cannot be ignored.
This nuance in personality structure has powerful implications for how substance use disordered millennials will present in treatment. Historically, narcissism has been believed by the clinical community to be inversely proportional to self-esteem and is considered by many to be a compensatory mechanism. Grandiosity was thought to be an individual’s way of overcompensating for low self-esteem. However, Twenge believes that low self-esteem among individuals with narcissistic traits is a myth and that test scores actually demonstrate high self-esteem among individuals with narcissistic personality traits. So, the vanity that we perceive from some millennials may actually be based on the belief in their own ability or self-efficacy. This is great when the individual’s achievements match up with their expectations of themselves, but what happens when he or she encounters an obstacle like a life threatening substance use disorder?
Failure resulting from substance use will often bring about misguided anger that is directed onto others.
Imagine this. A twenty-two-year-old young adult with an IQ of 140 fails out of college due to a substance use disorder. He is now living in his parent’s basement attempting to maintain. He has a minimum wage job, and even that is challenging for him at this point. At his best, he is bright and confident, and yet he is failing at life. He is beset by the dissonance of knowing where he should be and the reality of knowing where he is. Every day the theater of social media delivers the news that his entire cohort is passing him by. Even the smelly kid from gym class is on his way to law school while our millennial is on the road to nowhere.
Possibly the single greatest criticism of the millennial generation is the lack of personal accountability that has resulted from parental and institutional coddling. Failure resulting from substance use will often bring about misguided anger that is directed onto others. This is one of the reasons that strength-based treatment modalities like Motivational Interviewing are effective for addressing substance use disorders among young adults and adolescents. Simply put, by identifying goals that can motivate a desire to change, recovery is more internalized. The individual realizes that he or she must stay sober in order to accomplish their goals, so recovery and the pursuit of the goal become synchronous processes. Next, we have to help the individual to identify internal resources or strengths that can be utilized in pursuit of the goal. Millennials are typically pretty good at doing this.
Historically, residential treatment and subsequent transitional living models tended to place higher education on hold. For individuals who are considered to be college-bound, that can be stifling. We need to consider also that millennials are not necessarily known for their ability to delay gratification.
Another important tool is the motivational incentive. At Life of Purpose Treatment, education and the ability to attend college while in treatment fulfills this element by helping to restore the individual’s sense that forward movement can take place during recovery. Historically, residential treatment and subsequent transitional living models tended to place higher education on hold. For individuals who are considered to be college-bound, that can be stifling. We need to consider also that millennials are not necessarily known for their ability to delay gratification. So, if you are talking about six months, you might as well be talking about a decade.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that overdoses have surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control, young adults between the ages of 18-25 are at the highest risk. For all of our prevention efforts, the numbers continue to escalate every year. This is the Millennial Overdose Pandemic. It is not a social problem. It is a population health crisis like the black plague, polio or aids. They are a generation raised on inclusion and self-esteem. I have often wondered if perhaps the expectation of fairness has made them even more vulnerable in some way. Many of them will overdose. Many of them already have. Not everyone gets a second chance and no one receives a participation trophy.